2019 NFL preview: Old-school football still exists, just ask the Seahawks

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The Seattle Seahawks do things their own way. Last season they showed there are plenty of paths to win in the NFL.

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The Seahawks decided to go with a run-first approach, despite having a franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson. They chose a running back, Rashaad Penny, in the first round, then didn’t even feature him. They counted on a defense that lost multiple legends over a single offseason. It didn’t make a lot of sense.

I’ve done these previews for seven seasons now. I’ve never been more wrong about a team than I was about the 2018 Seahawks. I expected their throwback style to fail, or that they’d have to scrap it early on. They stuck with it, and it worked.

The Seahawks were second in the NFL in rushing attempts, with 107 more runs than passes. They were the only team in the NFL to attempt more runs than passes last season, and Seattle has a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Only the run-happy Baltimore Ravens, with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback, had more rushing attempts and even they finished with more passes than runs (due to Joe Flacco passing a lot early on). Russell Wilson threw 427 passes, his fewest since his second season in the NFL, but he was hyper-efficient. The Seahawks were content to control the ball, win the turnover battle and grind it out with a new-look defense that came together very quickly.

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It was old-school, and in many ways counterintuitive. Seattle went 10-6 and gave the Dallas Cowboys a good run in a wild-card loss.

“We make no apologies for how we play,’’ offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, according to the Seattle Times. “We want to run the football. We want to be physical. We want to take our shots.’’

Having a great coach-quarterback combination can make up a lot of ground. Pete Carroll has done a remarkable job in Seattle, and while his methods are unusual and his 2018 strategic approach was unconventional, he proved again how good he is. Wilson is simply one of the best players of his generation. The Seahawks cut back his opportunities so he made the most of them. He had a career-best touchdown rate and passer rating, and posted the second-best completion percentage and interception rate of his career.

Of course, when you’re unconventional and it doesn’t work, criticism will come quickly. Seattle lost 24-22 to Dallas in the wild-card round, and the play-calling was dissected afterward. The Seahawks ran 24 times for only 73 yards, and 28 of those yards came on one play. When the Seahawks finally opened up a bit in the fourth quarter, Wilson had 106 yards on 12 attempts. Before the fourth quarter Wilson — a Hall of Fame talent in a league that revolves around quarterback — had just 15 attempts for 127 yards. What if Seattle had let Wilson take over a bit earlier?

A team that won 10 games in the regular season faced a lot of questions about sticking with a conservative, ineffective game plan too long. How Carroll answered the criticism is a window into the Seahawks’ mindset.

“We couldn’t have been more committed to being an aggressive football team than we were this year,” Carroll said after the game, according to the team’s transcripts. “That meant that we’re playing great defense and we’re working on our [special] teams and running the football and we’re playing off of that – that’s us, that’s how we do it. That’s not anybody but starting with me. The fact that Schotty was working the game plan and trying to hammer the football is what we did every week and that’s how we’ve figured to win.”

In other words, that is how the Seahawks are going to play and they’re not changing. They don’t really care that 31 of the 32 teams passed more than they ran in 2018, and almost every one of those teams didn’t have a quarterback as good as Wilson. With the league trying to speed up, the Seahawks had the seventh-slowest pace in the league. It’s truly a different approach. It’s hard to argue with the results.

Don’t expect it to change this season.

Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson have led the Seahawks to a lot of success. (AP)
Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson have led the Seahawks to a lot of success. (AP)

The Seahawks lost some big names this offseason. Receiver Doug Baldwin retired. Frank Clark, who had 13 sacks last season, was traded to Kansas City. The Seahawks also lost safety Earl Thomas, though they played most of last season without him due to injury, and cornerback Justin Coleman. Seattle spent $9 million on a one-year deal for Ezekiel Ansah, and the former Lions pass rusher will be asked to replace what Clark did. There are concerning questions about Ansah’s shoulder — a report said he might miss the start of the season — but it was a worthwhile gamble. The other big signing was kicker Jason Myers ($15.45 million, four years), which should finally settle down a shaky kicking situation. The draft, led by TCU defensive end L.J. Collier and Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf, was mostly panned, but the Seahawks always follow their own board and it usually works out. Seattle had another offseason that doesn’t look great on paper, but it always seems to turn out well.

GRADE: C

If you’re going to be a run-first team, it helps to be good at it. The Seahawks led the NFL with 2,560 rushing yards, and they were efficient too. They averaged 4.8 yards per rush, which was tied for fifth in the NFL. Chris Carson held off 2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny to rush for 1,151 yards. Penny was good in spot duty, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Whatever order they find themselves in this season, the Seahawks have two quality backs.

Doug Baldwin meant a ton to the Seahawks. From 2015-17 he averaged 115 targets, 82 receptions, 1,063 yards and 10 touchdowns a season. He made two Pro Bowls. Then last season his body started to betray him, and he retired. Beyond the stats, you can’t quantify how Baldwin’s intensity set the tone for the Seahawks. He was a leader.

Baldwin’s retirement puts Tyler Lockett in a huge role. Rookie D.K. Metcalf has talent, but he’s a second-round rookie. Maybe David Moore can bump up his production after a solid second season (445 yards, five touchdowns, 17.1 yards per catch), though he is still a relative unknown. Tight end Nick Vannett hasn’t shown he can be a big part of a passing game, and running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny aren’t great receivers out of the backfield. Basically, the only reliable piece of this passing game is Lockett. He had a 57-965-10 line on just 70 targets last season, which is insane. He can’t repeat that efficiency, but his targets might come close to doubling if nobody else emerges. If Lockett doesn’t have a big season the Seahawks passing game could struggle, even with Russell Wilson throwing the ball.

Here are Russell Wilson’s rushing attempts from 2014 through last season: 118, 103, 72, 95, 67. Other than the 2017 spike, we can see the decline and it’s probably safe to say Wilson’s days as a runner are dwindling. He’s very likely never putting up another rushing line like the 118-849-6 performance he gave us in 2014. That’s especially true since he’ll turn 31 in November. Wilson is still capable of dodging the rush and making something out of nothing — it’s possible no quarterback has done that better, though Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach might disagree — but that trend of declining rushing attempts should continue. He’s still a special player, just one whose game is morphing a bit.

It’s a stretch to put a punter in this category, but we need to address Michael Dickson somewhere. It’s always curious when a team drafts a punter or kicker, but Dickson might have been the best fifth-round pick in the NFL last season. He was the only one to make first-team All-Pro. The punter from Texas was a true difference-maker, ranking second in the NFL at 48.2 yards per punt. He was even better in Seattle’s playoff game, averaging 51.4 yards on seven punts. He’s not really Seattle’s most important player after Russell Wilson — we’ll give linebacker Bobby Wagner those honors — but for a team that wants to play the style Seattle plays with an emphasis on field position, Dickson is the most important punter in the league.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Tyler Lockett was an efficiency god last year, posting a 57-965-10 line on just 70 targets. It made him the WR11 in standard formats, and the Seahawks, remarkably, had a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating on passes aimed at Lockett. That number will surely come down, of course; now it’s just a matter of how much the opportunity bar goes up. With Doug Baldwin retired, Lockett could be looking at a major bump in targets — and he might also see increased work in the slot, though he ran about half of his routes from the production-rich slot last year.

“An uncommon buying opportunity exists, because Lockett is being drafted merely as the WR26 in Yahoo leagues (bump that up two slots in an NFFC room). In other words, Lockett can regress a fair amount from last year’s finish and still make you a profit. I love this type of player, stepping into his fifth season and an age-27 campaign. Even though OC Brian Schottenheimer can be hard to trust, I still trust Russell Wilson plenty; thus, I’ll be targeting Lockett at his ADP (or slightly earlier) when I get to the draft table.”

The Seahawks led the NFL in turnover margin, with a startling plus-15. While some of that is due to having an all-world quarterback and an aggressive mindset on defense, some of it was luck too. Seattle was second in the NFL in fumble recovery percentage at 63.6 percent, and usually that’s a 50-50 proposition. Seattle fumbled 18 times on offense and lost only four. Defensively they recovered 14-of-26 fumbles. That’s a lot of extra possessions for a team that played 11 games, including playoffs, decided by seven or fewer points. Even if the Seahawks are annually a good bet to finish in the black for turnover margin due to their quarterback and defense, it’s hard to bet on them being plus-15 again.

CAN THE SEAHAWKS REPLACE FRANK CLARK?

It wasn’t exactly the Raiders trading Khalil Mack, but the Seahawks shipping Frank Clark to the Chiefs takes away their best pass rusher.

“We had every intention of doing a long-term deal with him and hoped that we could,” Pete Carroll said. “The market just went crazy.”

The Seahawks made two additions to replace Clark, who had 13 sacks last season. They signed Ezekiel Ansah, who had two double-digit sack seasons with the Lions but dealt with a lingering shoulder injury last year. Seattle also drafted TCU defensive end L.J. Collier. Collier is less a pass rusher and more an edge-setting big end, but he can fill a role in Clark’s absence.

To replace Clark’s pass rush the Seahawks need a big year from Ansah, but his health is still a concern. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported after the Seahawks signed Ansah in May that people around the league believe he might miss the first month of the season. If Ansah misses time or isn’t effective, it’s hard to see where the pass rush comes from. Jarran Reed had 10.5 sacks last season but that came out of nowhere after just three sacks his first two seasons. Nobody else on the Seahawks, other than Clark, had more than three sacks. That puts a lot of pressure on Ansah, and his health.

Can a team win a Super Bowl with the Seahawks’ run-happy approach in 2019? Yes, but a lot has to go right. The Seahawks defense was good (it ranked 14th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric) but needs to jump into the top 10, maybe five, to get the Seahawks to a championship level. It’s harder to see that kind of leap with Frank Clark now playing in Kansas City. But if the Seahawks can get into the playoffs again — and I won’t be the one to say they can’t, though it’s hard to see them beating the Rams in the division — they have Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll. You can’t count out a postseason run when a team has a coach-quarterback combination that good.

Seattle’s pass rush looks thin without Frank Clark, and the depth in the passing game is scary after Tyler Lockett. The Seahawks had a great turnover margin, and that’s unlikely to carry over. When you play like the Seahawks do, you’ll be in a lot of close games and a couple of bad breaks can turn a record sour in a hurry. I’m not saying the Seahawks will crater, but the margins for error get smaller with their style of play. If the Seahawks defense doesn’t get better and opponents sell out to stop the run because they have no reason to respect their receivers — see last year’s playoff loss at Dallas — then maybe this old-school style won’t look as brilliant.

In many ways I still can’t fathom a team with Russell Wilson deciding to run the ball like it’s the 1973 Bills. I’d want my MVP-level quarterback to have the ball in his hands as often as possible, but I was dead wrong on the Seahawks last season and won’t be burying them this preseason. When you have a coach like Pete Carroll and a quarterback like Wilson, your floor is pretty high. I don’t know that the Seahawks have a championship ceiling, but they’ll be right back in playoff contention. To make the playoffs they’ll need to win a majority of those tight games they like to play, but I can’t rule that out.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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